If you are into model trains, you’ve probably seen the words nickel silver on the packaging for track, or you’ve seen track advertised as being made of nickel silver. But what is nickel silver, and is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Nickel silver is a bit of a misnomer. It does not contain silver, the precious metal. It does contain nickel. Basically it is an alloy, or mixture, of nickel, copper, and zinc. This combination occurs in nature and was first discovered in China sometime before the 9th century. Exporting it was illegal, but some was smuggled into the East Indies and even Europe. The name comes from its resemblance to the precious metal.
Generally speaking, modern nickel silver is artificial. Sometimes it’s also called German Silver, because German metallurgists were the first to replicate the natural alloy artificially, around 1750. The usual mixture is 60% copper, 20% nickel, and 20% zinc.
Advantages as model railroad track
For decades, model train track was made of brass. Brass is a good conductor of electricity but it can corrode in humid environments. That can be a problem because many train layouts end up in humid environments like basements, garages, or attics. The oxidation that occurs on brass is not a good conductor. Nickel silver is more resistant to corrosion, and while there’s a lot of debate whether the oxidation that occurs on nickel silver is conductive, it does seem to cause fewer problems than brass. All of this makes it a lower maintenance choice. For this reason, nickel silver track has pretty much displaced brass track on the market in HO and N scale.
When either type of track oxidizes, there are products you can use to clean it off. Hobby shops sell abrasive track cleaners that look like an aggressive pencil eraser. It’s a exactly the same concept, but heavier grit, to remove dirt and oxidation more quickly.